They met this week in Philadelphia for a convention of the National Association of Secretaries of State. Utah is one of only three states without someone with the title of secretary of state, an office that typically oversees elections. But Utah’s Elections Director Justin Lee, who answers to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, attended. I spoke to him by phone as he was waiting to board his flight home.
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“We spent half of our time talking about security,” he said. Those discussions were not necessary prompted by President Trump’s refusal to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin over attempts to compromise U.S. elections. These people don’t need anyone else to tell them what’s going on.
Hacking attempts on Utah’s database of voter registrations reached the level of a billion per day earlier this year when Mitt Romney entered the Senate race, according to a Deseret News report by Art Raymond.
That’s enough to keep any security team on its toes, and it is easy to understand what is causing it.
Remember the presidential debate in 2012 when Romney identified Russia as the nation’s top geopolitical foe? President Obama answered with, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
As Cox told Utah Policy recently, Romney’s outspoken criticisms of Russia back then may well be connected to this surge. It turns out Obama’s retort, so clever at the time, keeps coming back like the remnants of a bad meal. Not withstanding the end of the Cold War, Russian attacks are very much a late-teens foreign policy concern.
These Russian operatives seem to understand the value of a billion failed attempts, which can be just as effective, or perhaps even more so, than one successful attempt. The idea is to nudge Americans into losing faith in their own elections, just as planting fake stories on Social Media — something U.S. intelligence also ascribes to Russians — leads to a general distrust of official institutions.
The truth is, it would be nearly impossible to rig an American presidential election. That’s because 3,143 separate counties, boroughs and independent cities count votes, each with separate methods and rules. Someone might be able to target strategic precincts, but many of those agencies use closed systems that bypass the Internet entirely. Bribing election judges and people in charge of counting machines would be costly and messy.
But merely attempting to influence the outcome of a presidential race could be the perfect crime. In today’s United States, whichever side you help will discount your efforts while the side you hurt can’t help sounding petty and whiny. Soon the truth becomes just another matter for debate, with no fact beyond the reach of accusations it was just made up.
I wrote something similar to this two years ago, only the context was different. Donald Trump, then a candidate widely expected to lose, was the one warning the election might be rigged against him.
That adds a touch of irony to his performance in Helsinki on Monday, when he discounted evidence Russian forces hacked computers belonging to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. “We ran a brilliant campaign and that's why I'm president,” he said.
Now he has changed his tune again. After enduring bipartisan criticism, Trump said Tuesday he had misspoken. He now accepts that Russia meddled in the election. He fully supports U.S. intelligence agencies.
Will that be enough? It may erase confusion over the impression Trump gave Monday that there is a moral equivalence between U.S. intelligence and mere denials from the Russian president, but the erosion of faith in American governmental institutions seems to have a momentum of its own.
As he prepared to board a plane, Lee assured me Utah’s election workers are doing all they can to stay ahead of the bad guys. The database is backed up every night. Counties count votes in Utah, but the state keeps the database of voters. Hackers could sow confusion by getting in and changing that.
“We’re confident, but we’re not naïve, he said.
That sounds like a great position for all Americans to take, from the top down.